It is unlikely that even Billy Crystal could have guessed how closely life would prove to imitate the art of his comedy.
On July 11, 1977, Crystal appeared on “The Tonight Show” and performed a dead-on impersonation of then-world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a role that he re-introduced on his 1985 comedy album “Mahvelous.”
In each of these skits, Billy Crystal/Ali claimed to have found “new religious beliefs.” On the album “Mahvelous,” he told interviewer Howard Cosell (also played by Crystal): “From now on, I want to be known as Izzy Itzkowitz.” This of course, was playing on the fact that Ali, whose original name was Cassius Clay and who was raised as a Baptist, revealed in 1964 that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, changing his moniker to the now-household name Muhammad Ali. In 1975 he converted again, this time to the more mainstream Sunni Islam.
Throughout his career and since his retirement from the ring, Ali has been known as a social activist, espousing the message of peace, love and understanding, an ironic message for a man widely revered as the world’s greatest boxer. Now it would appear as though his own progeny has taken that message to heart.
The boxing website thesweetscience.com reported on Wednesday that Ali attended Shabbat services at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in April, to celebrate the bar mitzva of his grandson, Jacob Wertheimer.
The former champion’s biographer Thomas Hauser wrote on the website that Ali’s daughter, Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, was raised as a Muslim, but described herself to Hauser as “not into organized religion” and “more spiritual than religious.” Her husband, attorney Spencer Wertheimer, is Jewish and their son, according to Khaliah, chose to have a bar mitzva because he “felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture,” the Inquirer reported.
According to Islam, a child’s religion is passed down from the father, while according to traditional Judaism it is passed down through the mother. This means that Islam, the religion of Jacob’s mother, considers him to be Jewish, and his father’s Jewish religion considers him to be a Muslim.